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Coverage of LeBron James's decision brings ESPN's integrity into question yet again

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By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 8:40 PM

On assignment covering the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament, I must admit I didn't make it back to a television set in time to watch "The Decision" brought to you by LeBron James and ESPN last Thursday night. Still, the more you read and hear about the one-hour not-so-special last Thursday night, the more you have to wonder if the entire fiasco wasn't really the brainchild of the Three Stooges' favorite firm, as in "Dewey, Cheatem and Howe."

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The most troubling aspect of the whole ill-conceived mess was ESPN's willingness to hand over an hour of prime-time television to an egomaniacal athlete the network should be covering as a news story. After all, James's final choice of teams already had previously been reported and confirmed by several other news outlets, including ESPN's own man, Chris Broussard. Wasn't that enough?

If James wanted to hold a news conference and invite the whole world in, that's fine and dandy, the right way to do it. That's how these affairs are usually handled, and properly so. Where one of the best players in the game winds up in free agency is a news story, plain and simple. And since when does this not-so-subtle form of checkbook journalism pass the smell test anywhere else but in the Bristol, Conn., offices of the so-called worldwide leader?

It doesn't, and ESPN's so-called journalistic integrity once again is being called into question, with very good reason.

Here's the rationale Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president, used to justify the show according to sportsjournalism.org, a Web site produced by Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center.

"This event could have ended up on the Internet," Williamson said last week. "It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity."

It was the wrong decision, and you'd also like to think the tsunami of criticism in its wake at least might make the ESPN people at least think twice about allowing it to happen ever again.

Over the last few days, I've spoken to several sports television executives, and virtually to a man they were highly critical of ESPN's decision, as well as its production. Particularly irksome was host Jim Gray's maddening questioning of James -- 16 in all -- before he asked the only one that mattered deep into the broadcast.

"It felt a little bit cheesy," one network sports vice president said. "It just felt like they were in bed with him, and that's something you never want to have happen. If you are going to tell us where he's going, get right to it. Ask the question. Where are you playing next year? It was a joke."

In an e-mail, another long time sports television veteran wrote: "Let's take this to its natural evolution: ESPN has just sent a message . . . that they are open for business for "news" announcements. So, when Carmelo Anthony becomes a free-agent, does he get a show?

How about (agent) Scott Boras? I can see him doing deals with ESPN that announces who his free agents sign with. How long is Kobe's contract? If Peyton Manning becomes a free agent, does he get a "news" show? If I'm an agent, I would be studying this like mad and I would be calling ESPN saying "give me the same or else I'll tell my client not to talk to ESPN folks."

The bottom line: Next time, ESPN would be wise to report the hell out of the story, then just say "No, we'll cover the news conference" the next time any representative for a star athlete demands the same treatment accorded LeBron James. He's really not a king.


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